We have now come to accept that our planet’s climate is changing, and that this catastrophic process is primarily man-made. If corrective measures and policies are enacted, we may still be able to prevent a disastrous course of events, although too much time has been lost and too much damage has already been done. The facts about climate change are well known: since the mid-1970s, the average surface temperature has warmed by about 1ºF. The Earth’s surface is currently warming at a rate of about 0.32ºF per decade or 3.2ºF per century. The eight warmest years on record (since 1850) have all occurred since 1998; the warmest was 2015. (Castells, 2009; National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2007; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2008).
The large majority of scientists in the field agree that human activity is one of the primary contributors to global climate change. The United Nations sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in its 2007 report that the global warming trend is “unequivocal” and that human activity is “very likely” (meaning a likelihood of at least 90%) the cause. The executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, Achim Steiner, said the report represented a tipping point in the accumulation of data on climate change, adding that February 2, 2007, the closing day of the conference, will perhaps be remembered as the day when global thinking about climate change moved from debate to action (Rosenthal and Revkin, 2007). (Castells, 2009).
It is uncertain whether the public is unreceptive to the urgency of climate change because it is written off as another generation’s battle or has simply become numb to the constant warnings. In an introduction to the book I’m With the Bears (2011), environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote, “Here science can take us only so far. The scientists have done their job--they've issued every possible warning, flashed every red light. Now it is time for the rest of us--for the economists, the psychologists, the theologians… and the artists, whose role is to help us understand what things feel like.” In this spirit of artistic intervention and sense of responsibility that Phase Change was conceived. Futures North believes that art is a powerful way to reach the public. Futures North has been working at the intersection of art, architecture and environmental data visualization with projects like Meander, an exploration in data spatialization consisting of 15 pillars that illustrate over two hundred years of historical information about the changing geometry of the Mississippi River, and Lakeforms, a dynamic, interactive public pavilion that is a digitally enhanced scale model of the underwater topography of Minnesota’s lakes.
Similar to these earlier projects, Phase Change is a data spatialization of climate change data. In order to re-sensitize the public to the issue of climate change, Phase Change visually recreates the effect of global warming on the polar ice caps, condensing years of climate data into an accessible display of the changes taking place worldwide. Three lightbulb-bearing lattices, each facing an ice wall, correspond to a different climate change scenario. Each set of 30 lights was programmed to flicker randomly at different magnitudes. The pre-industrial wall was only ever lit by 5% of its corresponding lamps, the present day wall was lit by 60-70% of its lamps, and the disastrous future wall by 95% of its lamps. The lamps were programmed in this way in order to illustrate the impact of human actions on climate change, as derived from climate change data recording the rate of melting ice caps. Each wall melted at a different speed, indicating the different impact human actions have had over the past decades.
The melting ice reimagines the effects of climate change into an event with a more comprehensive scale of time and size: visitors can touch and feel the ice and see it disappear over the course of one night. The ice in the installation itself represents the glaciers at either pole of the Earth. Its melting directly mirrors the effect of global warming on glacial ice, both in its beauty and the tragedy of its rapid deterioration. Phase Change makes visitors bystanders to our collective fate.
The three ice walls create a space in which viewers can engage both with the piece and with others. This creates a sense of intimacy encouraging visitors to consider what it means to face climate change as a community rather than as an individual.The three walls of intense heat and cold also threaten, as if closing in on the viewer, illustrating how we are in the midst of climate chaos. Yet, there are also physical gaps between the walls that allow for passage between the them and suggest metaphorically possible breaks in the timeline of climate change. These gaps between past, present and future scenarios suggest that there is still time in which to act and prevent a disastrous future.
The three ice walls also create an educational space in which people experience and learn about global warming through its representation in public art. Volunteers from YEA!MN were present at the event in order to facilitate these discussions and discoveries. As youth activists working towards a greener future, they offered their unique perspectives on the issues. Volunteer engagement within the installation furthers this idea of community engagement and activism--the youth of YEA!MN are representatives of the new generation, trying to build intergenerational dialogue and harmony for action.